At the Winter Meeting of the Democratic National Committee, in a ballroom of the Washington Hilton packed with hundreds of Democratic activists, Rep. Rahm Emanuel seems a distant memory. Emanuel is the Chicago Democrat who masterminded the brilliant, soothingly moderate Democratic campaign of 2006 while clashing with the fire-breathing DNC Chairman Howard Dean.
If there's one thing obvious in this room, it is that Emanuel might be clever, but it's Howard Dean's party. Dean electrified a similar DNC gathering four years ago when he said that he was "from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," and launched his anti-war candidacy briefly into the stratosphere. Now, all the Democratic presidential candidates appearing here borrow from Dean and try to appease the party's yowling, anti-war base.
Even Hillary Clinton, who now represents the right flank of the Democratic field. She is sporadically heckled from the floor as she speaks. She desperately wants to find her footing in her anti-war party, but in a way that doesn't damage her national-security credentials. There is a pleading quality to her anti-war lines, as if she's saying: "Please accept this and make me go no further."
She explains that the Senate needs 60 votes to cap troop levels, as she advocates, or cut off the funding for U.S. troops, which leaves it open that she'd be for a funding cutoff as well, if she had more votes. She touts her idea to cut funding for Iraqi troops — never mind that until now everyone has agreed that training Iraqi troops is an absolute imperative. She concludes by pledging that if Congress hasn't brought an end to the war by January 2009 — again leaving it open that she might support a congressional cutoff — she will if she's elected president.
Both are shots at Hillary, whose cutoff date of January 2009 seems far away compared with the dates of the rest of the field. Edwards wants the war over in 18 months, by August 2008. Obama wants it over in a little more than a year, by March 31, 2008. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson wants it over by the end of the calendar year, and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack wants it over "immediately."
This is a party that is heading toward serious attempts to cut off funds for the Iraq War, especially if conditions don't improve soon. Nonbinding resolutions of the sort the Senate is debating this week won't be adequate for long.
The Democrats are in the throes of a full-fledged Vietnam flashback. Even if the Bush "surge" works, Democrats will stay committed to ending the war — just as Democrats cut off the war in Vietnam in the mid-1970s, even as it had been put on a more sustainable footing. The party has regressed all the way to its McGovernite roots. The centrist Clintonite interlude of the 1990s is almost entirely washed away, with the Clintonite candidate — Hillary — trying not to get washed away with it.
The Vietnam Syndrome made Democrats allergic to the use of force for two decades. The Iraq Syndrome will be a reprise. Anyone who, like Rahm Emanuel, wants to see the Democrats occupy the sensible center must be dismayed. Howard Dean, however, can only be pleased. He's chairman of this party for a reason.